Academic journal article Islamic Sciences

The Origins of Sufism

Academic journal article Islamic Sciences

The Origins of Sufism

Article excerpt

In considering the origins of Sufism--and it is not the origin of the name but of the thing itself which is to be considered here, that is, mysticism in its Islamic form--it is necessary to distinguish its essential features from certain unessential characteristics which it may or may not have. For a brief general definition perhaps we cannot do better than take the two terms qurb (1) (nearness to God) and dhawq (2) (taste; that is, direct intellectual intuition) with which al Ghazali characterizes tasawwuf. The aspiration to 'nearness' may be described as an inward fire or as an inward light or as something between the two, according to whether the individual nature in question is more predisposed to spiritual love (mahabba) or spiritual knowledge (ma'rifa). Respectively, dhawq may be described as a taste of the fragrance of the Divine Beauty, a taste which irresistibly impels the believer to seek to draw near to God; or, since strictly speaking the nearness is already there, it may be described as a taste of the truth that God is nearer to him than his jugular vein. (3)

Essential to Sufism are the doctrine, the grace of dhawq (which the doctrine corroborates and clarifies), the spiritual aspiration (which is produced by the doctrine together with an initial degree of dhawq, and which gradually increases as the 'taste' grows more intense), and all the spiritual practices which constitute the individual effort of the mystic himself.

The composing of mystical treatises or poems has never been an essential aspect of Sufism or of any other form of mysticism. Without belittling the many inspired Sufi writings which have come down to us and which are unquestionably among the great outward glories of Islam, it should be remembered that they are, in relation to the essential, as sparks thrown out by the fire or the light; and it is not every fire which throws out sparks, (4) nor every light. Moreover, there is the question of time and place to be considered: when the Qur'an was still being revealed, when the Prophet was still present, it was clearly not the time for others to be speaking; nor was it, if one may say so, in accordance with the economy of Providence, that when the mission of the Prophet had been fulfilled, the ensuing silence should be immediately broken; (5) nor can the first Muslims have been in themselves readily disposed to seek expression for their spiritual experiences. If ever a community was imbued with a sense of the impotence of human utterance, it must have been the community of the Companions and of the generation which came after them. Thus for subsequent Muslim mystics, or, in other words, for those best qualified to make a pronouncement upon Sufism, the absence of first-century mystical treatises has not the least weight in the scale against their conviction that the great Companions were Sufis in all but name; and a Prophet is preeminently a mystic, for holiness is nothing other than the fullest realization of 'nearness'. But passing for the moment even as far back as the very threshold of Islam, there can be no doubt, that, historically speaking, the roots of Sufism lie in the Prophet's practice of spiritual retreats (6) in the cave on Mount Hira' during the month of Ramadan in the years immediately preceding the first Qur'anic revelation, a practice which he resumed, if indeed he had ever abandoned it, in the latter part of his life when he used to go into retreat in his Mosque at Medina, (7) as did also some of the Companions. (8)

The different spiritual practices upon which the Sufic path (tariqa) is based may be summed up under the general term dhikrNLlah (remembrance of God), and they have not changed in any fundamental respect from the time of the Prophet until the present day. The dhikr comprises what is obligatory for all Muslims and what is performed as a voluntary rite (nafila), which includes, in addition to rites in the ordinary sense, such practices as fasting in months other than Ramadan and keeping vigil, every consecrated act being a more or less direct means of remembering God. …

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